Conservatives pip Labour in UK by-election

William James and Elizabeth PiperAAP
UK PM Boris Johnson spoke to reporters in Hartlepool next to a large inflatable form of himself.
Camera IconUK PM Boris Johnson spoke to reporters in Hartlepool next to a large inflatable form of himself. Credit: AP

Voters in an opposition stronghold have turned en masse to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives, boosting his parliamentary majority despite a high COVID-19 death toll, last year's record economic slump and cronyism charges.

Conservative Jill Mortimer beat Labour's candidate in Thursday's ballot by 15,529 votes to 8589 to take the parliamentary seat for Hartlepool, a victory once unthinkable in a northeastern English port town that for decades backed the country's main opposition party.

The overwhelming victory for an often-criticised governing party increases pressure on Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has struggled to revive his party's fortunes since a disastrous general election in 2019.

Johnson celebrated by immediately visiting Hartlepool where he ascribed his party's success to its policies of delivering Brexit and ploughing money into areas where many voters have felt neglected by successive London-based governments.

"I think what this election shows is that people want a party and a government that is focused on them, focused on delivering change," he told reporters, standing in front of a giant inflatable version of himself.

"I think what's happened now is they can see that we did get Brexit done and to a certain extent they can see that we delivered on that. And I think what people want us to do now is to get on with delivering with everything else."

Starmer expressed his bitter disappointment at the result, pledging to do whatever it takes to reconnect to voters.

"I am bitterly disappointed in the results and I take full responsibility for the result and I will take full responsibility for fixing things," he told reporters.

"We have changed as a party but we haven't set out a strong enough case to the country. Very often we have been talking to ourselves instead of to the country and we've lost the trust of working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool. I intend to do whatever is necessary to fix that."

Voters on Thursday were also electing local councils and parliaments in Scotland and Wales, in Scotland's case also gauging support for the depth of backing for its leading party's push for independence.

The Hartlepool by-election, which took place outside the normal parliamentary cycle, was triggered by the resignation of a Labour MP in March.

Election analysts said it was the biggest swing of votes to the governing party at a by-election since World War II.

The outcome wrong-footed critics who have taken aim at the prime minister over sleaze allegations and for failing to move quickly enough to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

The UK has one of the world's highest COVID-19 death tolls.

"It's quite a spectacular turnaround in a seat that Labour should really have saved and defended," politics professor Michael Thrasher told Sky News.

Early results from the other elections, which will be released over several days because COVID-19 restrictions have slowed the counts, indicated the Conservatives had also gained seats on English councils, which look after local services.

The Hartlepool result continues a trend set by Johnson in the 2019 parliamentary election when he struck directly at Labour's heartlands, the "Red Wall" areas of northern and central England, to score a commanding majority in parliament on a simple message to "get Brexit done".

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